Early in November, weather conditions in Pensacola, Florida can range from sunny skies with balmy temperatures to cloudy conditions with chilly winds. True to form, both of these conditions prevailed during the second weekend of November, 2022, in time for the Blue Angels Homecoming Air Show. For the first time in three years, the traditionally last Blue Angels flying event of the year was held at Forrest Sherman Field, aboard NAS Pensacola.
This year marked the 100th anniversary of the US Navy’s aircraft carrier flight operations, and a wide variety of carrier-capable aircraft performed for the more than 200,000 spectators that flocked to the two-day air show. Civilian performers amazed the crowds with aerobatics, and the Blue Angels, now operating Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornets, dealt with the weather, both fine and adverse, with equal agility and grace.
Saturday, the weather was excellent for an air show, clear and warm. Sunday began hopeful, but a cold front arrived before noontime, along with a lowering overcast and cool, gusty winds by the end of the day.
There were a number of interesting background events that helped make this air show a resounding success for this aviation enthusiast.
The U.S. Navy’s newest training aircraft, the Leonardo TH-73A Thrasher helicopter was shown alongside of the outgoing helicopter training platform, the Bell TH-57C Sea Ranger. Bell’s Navy version of the 206 Jet Ranger has served in its capacity of trainer for Navy, Marine and Coast Guard pilots for almost 55 years, in one form or another. The new Thrasher is based upon the Leonardo TH-119 Koala civilian platform.
Comparing the cockpits, the new aircraft has flat panel displays and more automation than the retiring Sea Ranger. The Thrasher can be fitted with a hoist for training as well, something the Sea Ranger was never envisioned to do.
The Blue Angels had a pair of new aircraft to show off at this hometown air show, as they transitioned to Boeing Super Hornets and a Lockheed Super Hercules. The F-18Es are larger and louder than the retired legacy Hornets, and the new Super Herc came from the Royal Air Force after its retirement from the United Kingdom’s forces.
The newest fighter in the Navy and Marines arsenal is the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II. A pair of -C versions from the West Coast training squadron performed a two-ship flight demonstration, and then a Legacy formation with Mark Hubbard flying the FG-1D Corsair.
Civilian performers included a pair of hybrid-powered aircraft… ones with both a jet and a piston engine. Del Coller flew the Jet WACO and Jeff Boerboon flew the Yak-110 twin (basically two Yak 55s joined at the wing!). Red Line Airshows’ Adam Baker and Ken Rieder, and Brian Correll in his Pitts Special rounded out this field.
Sunday a special tribute was paid to a Korean War veteran whose valor during an air combat event is just coming to light. A recent declassification allowed the story of Captain Royce Williams’ dogfight against seven enemy MiGs to be told. Captain Williams was in attendance and garnered loud applause as he rode in a golf cart in front of the air show fence line.
Not just Naval aviation history was presented in Pensacola this weekend. U.S Air Force General Daniel “Chappy” James, a fighter pilot who rose to become the first black four-star General in the Air Force grew up in Pensacola. On display was a restored F-4 Phantom, which will be mounted and displayed in a memorial park near the base of the Pensacola Bay Bridge. Chappy’s mother was a pioneer schoolteacher in Pensacola too, and a museum is still in Pensacola today, as a tribute to her as well.
A parade of Naval Aviation trainers was an early act during the flying show, containing N2S Stearman Kaydets, a Beech T-34 Mentor, a North American T-28 Trojan and a four-ship formation of Beech/Raytheon T-6A Texan IIs. The Air Force A-10 Demo Team flew on both days and the SOCOM Para Commandos jumped from Fat Albert to open the shows with Ken Rieder circling the jumpers.
Finally, the Blue Angels completed the daily shows, with a few startlingly effective sneak passes thrown in. Shortly after the weekend wound down, the show’s Facebook page noted that some 210,000 spectators attended the renewed annual event and announced that there’re getting ready for next year’s show. See you there?!